I sometimes get asked, “In a nutshell, what is choice theory?”

The person doing the asking may not have heard of William Glasser or choice theory and, when the conversation comes around to Glasser and his ideas, they become interested in a short-cut description.

It’s a fair question. So, how would you, in a nutshell, describe choice theory?

Some possible descriptions include –

Choice theory explains how human beings are motivated and guided by an internal control mechanism. Whether we are proactively creating new behaviors or simply responding to external circumstances, it is this internal control process from which we decide how to behave or how to respond.

Choice theory describes a psychology that is based on the belief that human beings behave in purposeful ways to meet their personal needs. These needs include connecting with others, being successful at what we want to do, being free to do what we want without undo restrictions, and having fun and enjoying life. Rather than being controlled by others, we are constantly behaving in a way that we think will be need-satisfying.

Choice theory describes how free we are, and how much power we have, to be the architects of our own mental health. It helps us understand how to become more responsible for our thinking, our acting, our feelings, and even our physiology.

What is your nutshell description? Do you have a “go to” answer for this situation?



The implication of people being motivated and guided by an internal control system is huge! Bigger than huge! It takes existing approaches and practices and sweeps them away. For educators the implications of internal control are especially significant.

Choice theory, along with explaining the reality of internal control, also explains why external control—rewards and punishments in their varied forms—is ineffective, at best, and destructive at its worst. For over a century schools in the U.S. have sought to discover some new form of reward or punishment to externally control students, and even teachers, toward better performance. The No Child Left Behind school improvement plan led to underperforming schools being listed in the newspaper, with the hope that public embarrassment would spur them toward higher achievement. It didn’t work that way, as you might predict. Policy makers with an external control mindset want to extend the hours of the school day and lengthen the school year, thinking these external factors will make better learning take place. What they have failed to see is that doing things ineffectively, only now doing them for longer periods of time, still result in ineffective performance. What is needed is to design a school experience that acknowledges the internal control system by which every student is guided. Only when we intentionally create schools that are need-satisfying to students will performance reach the desired levels.


Some schools have created this kind of environment and are experiencing wonderful results. Glasser Quality Schools would be a prime example. Closer to home for me, the New Technology schools throughout Napa County are creating this kind of environment as well. It can be done.



Thank you to those who have written a review on Amazon for the Champion of Choice biography! Eight reviews have been submitted so far. It would be good if we could get that number up to 80, or even higher. Writing a review is a simple way to draw attention to Glasser’s life and his ideas.


“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
Carl Jung